Devoted couple Bill Willams and his wife Cathy are cuckoo about collecting. He collects thousands of clocks and she collects thousands of mermaids. It’s their quirky and wonderful hobby that keeps their loving relationship ticking.
“Some people think we are mad. We’ve even been described as ‘delightfully eccentric’,“ Cathy explains.
“But what we do is not an eccentricity, because we are as passionate about each other as we are about collecting.”
To date, Bill’s (68) vast total of clocks has currently reached 3259, holding the world record number of clocks in a private collection. The assorted array of grandfather and cuckoo timepieces are safely kept in an old Presbyterian church
Bill bought, and moved onto a paddock on their rural property just outside of Feilding.
Fortunately for Cathy (58), as soon as the clocks found a new home, she had space to move her mermaid collection of more than 2000 into their spare room!
“It’s important that we keep our separate collections in one place,” Cathy explains. “Otherwise, if we start putting them everywhere, they would overwhelm our home. Having living space is very important.”
The collecting craze started with Bill 25 years ago, before he met his future wife. The retired teacher, who is now an English tutor, bought an antique clock in Auckland. When he returned home and took it apart, he was fascinated by the mechanics.
“It was a Napoleon hat-type clock in a second-hand book store – I thought it would look good on the mantelpiece and bought it for $37.”
That single purchase sparked his interest and his collection craze began.
“I appreciated the aesthetics of a clock, and found they had a soothing sound,” Bill says.
He met Cathy two years later, when a mutual friend set them up. He knew he had found a keeper, when Cathy didn’t mind his clocks lying around the house.
“When I met Cathy, I only had 30 clocks. I promised her I’d stop at 100,” Bill says. “Obviously, I didn’t keep that promise!”
As the years went by, the clocks outgrew their home and finally needed to be moved. It was ironic that Bill bought an old church to house them, because his collection has been like a religion to him. Insured for $250,000, the items include one belonging to a Russian cruise liner that sank in the Marlborough Sounds, to an unwanted clock won by a contestant on the old TV game show Sale of the Century. Most don’t require batteries, and it takes weeks for Bill to individually wind each clock up.
But it wasn’t long before Cathy, who works as a nurse, caught the collecting bug from her husband and began her own obsession with mermaids, around 10 years ago.
“As a child, I was always fascinated with mermaids, especially their myths and legends from different countries. They’re also very pretty to look at. I bought one, then two, then three and four. Gradually, the collection got bigger and bigger,“ she says.
Bill was not surprised his wife followed in his footsteps.
“It’s pretty hard not to catch the bug when you’re closely aligned with someone who is as obsessive as I am,” Bill says, looking at his wife with a smile.
Soon, Cathy’s collection matched Bill’s in numbers. Cathy’s mermaid items include jewellery, posters, dolls and other mermaid-related collectables.
Meanwhile, Bill’s clocks fill the church walls and hundreds lay on many shelves. Bill is a famous figure in his community, turning his collection into a clock museum and appearing in the recently-released book Kiwi Collectors: Curious and Unusual Kiwi Hobbies. With so many clocks, Bill has had to devise a system of keeping track of them all.
“When I buy a clock, I give it a number, write down how much it cost, how much it’s worth, and so have a record of it,” he explains.
Despite the couple being fierce collectors, they are adamant there’s no competition between the two.
“We have a mutual respect and understanding of each other’s collections,” Cathy says. “The only thing that gets up my nose is when he starts repairing his clocks on the table.”
The pair have a 22-year-old son, Andrew, who hasn’t quite caught the bug.
“He’s not into clocks or mermaids at this stage, but he might be, as one day he will inherit all of it,” Bill laughs.
Bill adores his wife so much, he often buys her mermaids to add to the collection and raise her spirits.
“I love the fact that we both get enjoyment from collecting things. It makes us very happy,” Bill says. “Whenever I go to markets, the first thing I look for is something that ticks. Now, I also check out anything that has a tail.”
Aroha Awarau. Photos: Bernadette Peters • Make-up: Christiana Cleland